Madison’s live music mix is healthier when heavy stuff is a consistent presence.
Madison has treated metal listeners unusually well in the past couple of years. I’m used to being pleasantly surprised with a good metal show two or three times a year, but lately it’s happening much more frequently, in venues ranging from dive bars to big theaters. In the past year alone, I’ve seen the great Neurosis at the Majestic, ambitious Portland doom quartet Drouth at The Wisco, and Yob at the High Noon Saloon, and Earth at The Frequency (it’s a little late to call Earth simply a metal band now, but they’re of the same realm), to name a few. Madison has gotten shows from a reunited Bongzilla, Brazillian stalwarts Sepultura, and even Anthrax (oddly billed under some doofy modern-rock stuff on a WJJO-presented festival but still), and of course, Slayer will play this Wednesday at the Orpheum. And while metal has its ups and downs in local music, there have been bright spots lately, like Madison’s Bereft signing to Prosethetic Records.
Part of this is just venues and show promoters recognizing the obvious—metal, like country and hip-hop, is a much-dismissed “underground” that’s actually teeming with very enthusiastic, and enthusiastically spending, fans, and these fans are as diverse and spread-out as the genre is aesthetically. Part of it is local musicians having the initiative and passion to set up shows for heavier bands they know and/or like. Judging by the strong turnout at the metal shows I’ve attended personally, and many others that have recently sold out or at least sold very well, Madison is as valid a place as any to bet on that audience.
I’m not hoping for metal to overpower the Madison concert calendar in the way that mild-mannered folk and guitar-pop have. (One could be forgiven for thinking that Madisonians just want to see 500 Caroline Smith shows per year.) As someone who enjoys many genres of music and doesn’t really hang my personal identity on any single one of them in particular, I think the point is that heavy music should be one healthy component in the mix of touring music here. Lately it feels like Madison has achieved that, or at least come pretty close. Even shows that don’t much interest me personally—like Black Tusk’s show this past weekend at the High Noon, or The Black Dahlia Murder’s upcoming sold-out show at The Frequency—make our live-music landscape more rewarding as a whole. That's true no matter where you stand in the metal world's weird internecine debates about subgenres and authenticity (PS I don't care).
Here’s the other reason I’d like to see this continue: The Rave. Dear god, The Rave. I actually enjoy making day trips to Milwaukee for shows and many of its venues are lovely (from the Catcus Club to the Pabst), but The Rave is where many of Milwaukee’s bigger metal shows end up. Madison venues have their flaws, but The Rave just exudes a pure hatred for music and its fans. The Rave will charge you for water, subject you to the uncalled-for levels of staff surliness, and top it all off with dreadful sound. On the other hand, the Majestic may charge people for water, but when I saw Neurosis there last summer, it sounded great and I had a good time overall. (Yes, I realize the venues aren’t comparable in size, but there’s a broader point here about the experience and treatment you get when you pay for a ticket.)
The renovated Orpheum, where Slayer is playing Wednesday night, might not be perfect either, but it’s still far more pleasant and in a better location. If the Orpheum must be booked by concert-industry monopoly-ogre Live Nation, could we please at least sweeten this bargain by drawing more metal shows away from The Rave? Just saying, we don’t have to live in a world where Madisonians have to drive to The Rave to see the Napalm Death/Melvins/Melt Banana tour. We can change this paradigm, people!
I do not begrudge Milwaukee’s better and/or smaller venues their metal offerings. For instance, this Thursday the Cactus Club is hosting Bell Witch, Wrekmeister Harmonies, and Milwaukee standouts Northless. I’m betting this will be a great show and wonder if I should make the trip myself, but it’s not unreasonable that a band like Bell Witch could play a place like the Cactus (which has a capacity of about 150 people) one night and a small Madison venue like The Frequency the next. Of course, you can’t always get what you want in touring music, but I’m optimistic that Madison can earn (*is* earning!) itself a bigger spot on the map for heavy music of all varieties.